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Our pictures cannot stop war, but can make people think – war photographer

Sometimes, one click of the shutter is all it takes to tell a story – and the stories captured by the man we speak with on this edition of the show are those of agony and suffering. Fabio Bucciarelli, award-winning war photographer and photojournalist, told us what it’s like to look war in the eyes through the lens of a camera. 

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Award-winning photojournalistandwar photographer Fabio Bucciarelli, welcome to the show, it’s great to have you with us, Fabio. You contrast photojournalism with the flow of fake news, with photojournalists as the guardians of truth. But any piece of fake news can be illustrated with a real photo – it’s all about the headline, the interpretation, the context – can photojournalists guard the truth alone? 

Fabio Bucciarelli: Hello. Photojournalists, any journalists, have to search for the truth, that is the goal of their work. Understandably, when a journalist works in a conflict zone, the task of finding the truth becomes a lot more difficult. As for fake news, not everyone can truly be called a photojournalist. A photographer’s professionalism is affirmed by his background and recognition of his previous work. Fake news is a whole system. And not everything depends on the photojournalist who works in the field trying to tell the truth. The publisher will decide which specific materials will be published. The publisher also employs writers who write texts, there are columnists… I will say it again. It’s a system, and any photographer doing their job, which is telling the truth, and especially if they are in the conflict zone, must remember that.  

SS: Any time you take a photo, is it your view of the situation, narrowed down to the limits of your frame? Can a photographer ever really escape bias, no matter how noble it might be? 

FB: A photographer has their views, just like any other person delivering information. On any picture, we see the things that this photographer chose to capture with their camera. Again, the most important thing is to tell the truth, but like I said, finding this truth is not always easy. Credibility is based on the information the photographer or journalist has when covering an event. 

SS: You also said it yourself in one of the interviews that sometimes you have to pick sides. So you are not always above the fray, sometimes you let yourself become a part of it – do you feel that is fair to the viewer, who is viewing your work in a news setting and thinks of it as objective? 

FB: Photographers are real people with their own political views and understanding of human rights. So when you talk about taking sides, I can say that I am always on the side of human rights, and I try to expose violations of human rights in conflict zones. It is really hard to show both sides when you cover a conflict, especially with the ways conflicts go these days. This happened to me in Syria. After I took pictures of the war in the opposition-held territories, I couldn’t get an official visa, so there was no way for me to cover the story from the side of the Assad regime. Of course, in order to get the full picture we need to look at the situation from both sides. However, violations of human rights are often obvious from any angle.  

SS: In the American military there is this practice of embedding journalists in units – and you were also sort of embedded with the Syrian rebels for a while. What do you think works best, covering the story solo or embedded, having access or being detached from any side? 

FB: Working in a situation when you are embedded with an armed opposition group or a military unit is very different. If you are ‘attached’ to this group, you have to follow the rules, be it the US army, Italian armed forces, or soldiers from any other country. You have to obey, and the rules are in line with the policies of this force or this country. When you are embedded, you have to be very careful about doing your job and make sure that you don’t become a propaganda tool. It’s a very delicate issue. I try to avoid embedding, I don’t want to be attached to any regular forces that have their own bureaucracy and procedures. I prefer to freelance and decide on my own where I will go, what I will do and how I will cover events. I don’t want my materials to be censored and filtered through by any group. And I would also like to point out that being embedded with a militant group is not the same as being embedded with regular forces. There is no formal accreditation, or embedding, with them, at least in my case (I am talking about my experience here). They help you move around, but they don’t know how the media work, and, unlike regular armies, they don’t have their own media agenda. 

SS: At the end of the day, a picture is but an incomplete image of something way bigger, the larger story, and the greater context is sometimes vital for the real truth to come out – I mean, just look at the recent incident, where the picture of a bruised black actor posted on social media led to a huge outcry over a hate crime that is now suspected of being staged. So how much should we trust an image after all, no matter how heart-rending it might be? 

FB: To trust a photograph means trusting the photographer’s ethics, their approach to their job, and their past experience as a journalist. If someone has been doing excellent work for 20 years, it is easier for us to trust this person’s photos, as opposed to the work done by someone who just showed up in a conflict zone for the first time. It is important to know who took the picture or wrote the article. I know exactly which ones of my colleagues working in conflict zones I can trust, because I know their background and stories, and I don’t doubt their professionalism. I always say that one photo is not enough, you need to present a story. The more details you give, the more photos you show, the more credible your coverage will be. And you have to understand that it takes time for a journalist to embed themselves and gain an insider perspective. A journalist must be at the scene in order to figure out what’s going on. I am against the type of journalism that already has all the answers. That’s why I disagree with some of my colleagues and policies of some media outlets that sometimes just don’t have enough money to send a reporter on a long trip. But a photographer or a journalist needs time to establish relationships with the people around. A photographer needs time to gain their trust. I guess that is my answer to the question about making sure that your work doesn’t become fake news.  

SS: A photograph is so powerful because it deals with emotions, it can make us feel for someone caught up in turmoil – and probably feel good about ourselves for being this compassionate. What do you think that feeling can change about any given situation? Do you aspire to take photographs that become catalysts of change? Is that even possible? Can a photo change a situation around the world drastically? 

FB: I think it’s important to document events happening in conflict zones, so that people would think about what’s going on. When people know that something is happening in some region of the world, this affects them individually and as a group. The power of photojournalism is in its ability to influence people. A person realizes that something is happening in other parts of the world, it’s the truth, and starts thinking about it. And if this thinking becomes collective thinking, when many people think about the same things, then there is hope that we can influence nations. Let’s take the war in Syria, for example. Our people know very little about what’s going on there. And now imagine what would happen if there were no stories from photographers and cameramen working in the region. They tell us the real story, and thanks to them, people start thinking, and they realize that horrible things are happening somewhere.  

SS: So let me ask you something about your style. Does the realism and the gore of your photos add to their popularity? I mean, there’s lots of different ways to shoot war, and you choose, sort of, like, in-your-face kind of approach. Is it easier to hook the viewer on that than onto black-and-white art shots, for example? 

FB: Reality is what I get to deal with. It’s my job to unveil sensitive issues related to wars and military conflicts. I use my camera to document reality. And sometimes this reality is extremely harsh, it’s mind-boggling, it makes you sick to the stomach, it feels like a gut punch. I’m sorry but that’s what reality is. Imagine what it’s like for people who are living in conflict zones. My approach is based on empathy and compassion. I’m always trying to be close to people. I use 24mm and 35mm wide-angle lenses. This means I need to be as close to the scene as possible. Robert Capa used to say that if your picture is not good enough, it’s because you are not close enough. I believe that you need to be not just physically close in terms of distance, but also emotionally and morally close. Wide-angle lenses can be very helpful in this respect. 

SS: Do you, for yourself, choose, like, where are the moral boundaries of what you can and can’t shoot? 

FB: In my case, my boundaries are determined by my ethical principles and my ability to sympathize with people. I always try my best to grasp the gist of the situation, to understand people’s cultural background, to study the dynamics of the situation, including the dynamics of pain people are experiencing, and then try to show this dynamics in your pictures. But you always need to treat people you are photographing with utmost respect. 

SS: They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder – and perhaps not just beauty, in some cases. Did it ever happen to you that your picture was grossly misinterpreted by the public? 

FB: Fortunately, this has never happened to me. But I know a few colleagues who sometimes face this problem, especially those who work for big news agencies. All copyrights belong to news agencies, and they can crop photos or sell them to a newspaper or magazine, so it’s very difficult to trace them. Agencies like AP, AFP, Reuters work with all kinds of outlets all over the world, so it’s obviously very hard to trace each and every published photo. My photos have never been misinterpreted or misused for political or some other purposes, but sometimes my photos get cropped. It doesn’t change the essential meaning of the photos, but it always affects the emotional and aesthetic perception. 

SS: You spent a lot of time with the Free Syrian Army fighters, capturing the grim reality of the Syrian war, and you say that, unlike with Libya, the world merely stood aside. But the world did not stand aside in Syria, everyone got involved there from the very beginning, just not through a direct operation right away. Some states sponsor rebels, some sponsor Assad. You would have liked the world to have an even bigger role in Syria, like a Libyan-style operation, do I understand correctly? 

FB: You know, the thing is that if you don’t know all the twists and turns, you may align yourself with one of the opposing parties in the conflict. So it’s absolutely essential that you know the dynamics, because it’s not about supporting one of the parties; it’s about supporting the weak, the civilians, it’s about supporting women and children who are being bombed, and shelled, and shot by snipers. It’s not about supporting militants or Assad. We need to support those who are suffering, those who didn’t want this war and are now suffering because of it. Who is suffering when two parties are fighting? Civilians are, they are the victims of armed conflicts. Both in Syria and in Libya, I would often witness people queuing up to get bread being bombed, or snipers shooting women and children. I believe it makes no sense to ask someone who they support in this situation. I support those who are telling the truth about these events, I support those that are the victims of these armed conflicts. Also, we should never forget what sparked the Arab Spring. It all started when people rose up against their governments and dictatorships in some cases. Obviously, there were certain forces that tried to use people’s sentiments for their political and economic interests. Look at Libya; remember what it was like in 2011, when the conflict stated, and see what became of it.  

SS: Right, so the Syrian conflict, and the Libyan conflict, those are the cases that were very thoroughly covered, and a lot, in the mass media. But you mention wars in Africa, for instance, and suddenly nobody really cares. Why do you think that is? People die there and people die here the same, why shouldn’t there be more coverage of that?  

FB: This is a very interesting question, a very, very interesting question. It’s part of my job to cover conflicts neglected by the media. If you ask me why the Arab Spring or events in Libya, Syria, Iraq and Egypt attract much more attention than a great number of the so-called forgotten conflicts, like South Sudan, Mali and Eritrea, I would say this is all about the media. It’s all about the mainstream media interests, it's about the major TV companies’ interests. The suffering people in one place can never be more important than the suffering people in another place. Human suffering is the same everywhere. So it’s us, reporters and photographers, who are responsible for telling people about the conflicts which attract less attention. It’s the responsibility of TV outlets – American, Russian, Italian or British – to cover the conflicts which attract less media attention. The Middle East conflicts attract more media attention because they affect the interests of a great number of parties. But for a reporter, no conflict can be more important than any other conflict. If some conflicts attract more media attention, it doesn’t mean that people there are suffering more than others. So I say again, it’s the responsibility of reporters and TV outlets to cover less known conflicts, because they are the source of information. 

SS: You say what’s driving you is not fortune, and it’s not the fame, but your curiosity, a thirst for knowledge. For example, you went to Libya to cover the war from the rebels’ side, because you knew that at the time, Libya was fighting for its rights against a dictator. So what is it that you seek – knowledge as such, or confirmation of what you already know? 

FB: In 2011, when I worked in Libya, it was practically impossible to cover the conflict without being among the rebels. It was absolutely impossible to cover the events being only with the Qaddafi forces. So, in order to be able to cover this conflict, the reporters had to be on the other side. I assure you, my colleagues and I, we were as objective as we could be. It’s extremely difficult to be in a warzone and show the situation from both sides – especially today. In the past, when working in a conflict zone, a photographer used to be somewhat protected. Today, photographers and reporters are no longer protected; in fact, they are targets, because they are sources of information for both the government forces and the rebels. Both sides realize how important information is and try to cover things up. This affects the reporters who travel to the conflict zone to tell the truth. This truth is hard to get, and quite often it turns out to be extremely uncomfortable. 

SS: Over the last couple of months, you’ve been reporting from the U.S.-Mexico border, and you witnessed migrants being turned back as they tried to jump over the fence. Border Control apparently didn’t like to be filmed, and I know that several of your colleagues had their passports photographed by the police and were even denied entry to Mexico. Have you ever been prevented by the authorities from doing your job? 

FB: As far as this situation and working in Mexico is concerned, I can tell you it’s very difficult now to report about the wall between Mexico and the U.S. Like the U.S. president says, the administration has adopted a zero tolerance policy. Some of my colleagues covering the border were denied entry to the U.S. Some human rights lawyers traveling to Mexico to see the situation with their own eyes were also denied entry. I can tell you that it’s very difficult to cover migrant issues at the border today because of restricted access. The authorities do their best to control information coming from the U.S.-Mexican border. At the same time, we have to let the world know about the situation there, because that’s our journalistic duty. This is what free access to information means, and this right has to be enshrined in the Constitution as a fundamental part of the information policy. 

SS: I spoke recently to one of your colleagues, photojournalist Zoriah Miller, and he told me that every war photographer is driven by the idea to get the picture that will stop the war. What’s your take on this – can images, powerful as they may be, literally stop the war?  

FB: I don’t think your goal should be to take an iconic picture which will stop the war. I think it’s a utopia. In the past, we had a number of very powerful pictures taken in Vietnam, in the Balkans, in Syria. These pictures were so powerful that they would stop the war immediately – if only they could do that. I think the mission of a photographer is to impress people and make them think. We make our choices based on the information we get from reporters working on the ground, and this is the only way we can preserve our collectivity and have informed development. This is the only way we can have mutual respect, human rights and remain human beings. I want my photographs to make people think about the events taking place far away. I want them to be aware of what is actually happening. I want them to know the truth about war. I don’t want them to turn away and pretend that nothing is happening. This is what makes the work of conflict zone photographers and cameramen so important. 

SS: Fabio, thank you very much for this interview, good luck with everything. We were talking to Fabio Bucciarelli, award-winning photojournalist covering conflicts and their humanitarian fallout, discussing the role of war photography in today’s world. 

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